Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 41

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Up to this time Theobald’s manner had been studiously calm, and his words had been uttered slowly, but here he suddenly quickened and flung off the mask as he added the words, “or some such cock and bull story, which your mother and I were too truthful to disbelieve.  You can guess what must be our feelings now.”

Ernest felt that this last home-thrust was just.  In his less anxious moments he had thought his papa and mamma “green” for the readiness with which they believed him, but he could not deny that their credulity was a proof of their habitual truthfulness of mind.  In common justice he must own that it was very dreadful for two such truthful people to have a son as untruthful as he knew himself to be.

“Believing that a son of your mother and myself would be incapable of falsehood I at once assumed that some tramp had picked the watch up and was now trying to dispose of it.”

This to the best of my belief was not accurate.  Theobald’s first assumption had been that it was Ernest who was trying to sell the watch, and it was an inspiration of the moment to say that his magnanimous mind had at once conceived the idea of a tramp.

“You may imagine how shocked I was when I discovered that the watch had been brought for sale by that miserable woman Ellen”—here Ernest’s heart hardened a little, and he felt as near an approach to an instinct to turn as one so defenceless could be expected to feel; his father quickly perceived this and continued, “who was turned out of this house in circumstances which I will not pollute your ears by more particularly describing.

“I put aside the horrid conviction which was beginning to dawn upon me, and assumed that in the interval between her dismissal and her leaving this house, she had added theft to her other sin, and having found your watch in your bedroom had purloined it.  It even occurred to me that you might have missed your watch after the woman was gone, and, suspecting who had taken it, had run after the carriage in order to recover it; but when I told the shopman of my suspicions he assured me that the person who left it with him had declared most solemnly that it had been given her by her master’s son, whose property it was, and who had a perfect right to dispose of it.

“He told me further that, thinking the circumstances in which the watch was offered for sale somewhat suspicious, he had insisted upon the woman’s telling him the whole story of how she came by it, before he would consent to buy it of her.

“He said that at first—as women of that stamp invariably do—she tried prevarication, but on being threatened that she should at once be given into custody if she did not tell the whole truth, she described the way in which you had run after the carriage, till as she said you were black in the face, and insisted on giving her all your pocket money, your knife and your watch.  She added that my coachman John—whom I shall instantly discharge—was witness to the whole transaction.  Now, Ernest, be pleased to tell me whether this appalling story is true or false?”

It never occurred to Ernest to ask his father why he did not hit a man his own size, or to stop him midway in the story with a remonstrance against being kicked when he was down.  The boy was too much shocked and shaken to be inventive; he could only drift and stammer out that the tale was true.

“So I feared,” said Theobald, “and now, Ernest, be good enough to ring the bell.”

When the bell had been answered, Theobald desired that John should be sent for, and when John came Theobald calculated the wages due to him and desired him at once to leave the house.

John’s manner was quiet and respectful.  He took his dismissal as a matter of course, for Theobald had hinted enough to make him understand why he was being discharged, but when he saw Ernest sitting pale and awe-struck on the edge of his chair against the dining-room wall, a sudden thought seemed to strike him, and turning to Theobald he said in a broad northern accent which I will not attempt to reproduce: